Sacha Jenkins has had so many irons in so many fires, it’s hard to believe he has just the two hands.
Over the years, this TV producer/journalist/filmmaker/writer/musician/artist/curator has taken up subjects and passions as diverse as graffiti, hardcore music, and hip-hop. He coauthored a book with Eminem. He worked for Vibe and Rolling Stone. He’s creative director of Mass Appeal magazine.
And now his documentary feature, Fresh Dressed, comes to theaters (and other channels of distribution) near you on June 26. it’s part of a larger cultural interest in ’90s hip-hop, as seen in the recently released film Dope.
Fresh Dressed charts the history of the fascinating ways hip-hop and fashion have intersected over the years. The film, coproduced by Nas, also features interviews with Kanye West, Sean Combs, and Pharrell Williams–though some of the most enlightening interviews are with figures you’re not likely to have heard of. Fast Company spoke with Jenkins about what inspires him, the business lessons of Fresh Dressed, and the film’s approach to navigating modern distribution.
You’ve done a lot over your career–zines, books, music, TV, and now a documentary–on a lot of different topics. Do you focus on one interest at a time, or juggle multiple ones at once?
They’re all secretly related. When I was coming up in the ‘80s, you were either into hip-hop or not. You were in a box. But I was into hip-hop, and hardcore, and skating, and graffiti. I’m in a hardcore band now. You might see me on the street and not think I’d know anything about it, but I’m playing really aggressive hardcore music to a largely white audience. Growing up, I always found a couple of kids where it was, “Oh he’s into graffiti, and he’s into metal.” There were always a couple of guys who crossed over. So I continuously found what was common in all those things–and what was common was this do-it-yourself, hands-on experience. Whether it was graffiti, hip-hop, or punk, the kids at the forefront of these subcultures were the same kid: driven, creative, inspired by the culture they surrounded themselves with.
When people tried to pigeonhole you, how did you overcome that? How did you get comfortable saying, “I’m this, and I’m that, and I’m that”?
If I was anything other than that, I wouldn’t be true to myself. I know that sounds easy for me to say as an adult looking back. But I constantly need stimulation that involves me being creative, or I get depressed. As a person of color in America, identity is something I constantly struggle with. When I strip away the notion of what it means to be black, to be American, to be a father, a husband, I can just boil it down to who I am at the core. The only value I have beyond my value in the bank is my creativity. You get to a point in life after you’ve had some success and some heartbreak, some losses, some break-evens, when you’re really alone and you have to think about what it all boils down to, who you really are inside. That person is going to dictate how you handle the superficial stuff, like the boxes they’re going to put you into because you’re black, or a woman, or whatever Other you might be.
There must be benefits to having so many interests.
It was a great networking tool. It got me at a young age connecting with a broad range of people. If you come from Utah, and I can connect with you about Neil Young, why he’s inspiring–why? because he’s really creative, every album is different, some suck, some are phenomenal, because he’s human and not afraid, and whatever he makes is a reflection of where he is in that moment of life–then you and I have something in common. That’s what hip-hop has done for a new generation of Americans. Young white kids, the first music they listen to is hip-hop, and maybe even if they don’t know black kids, they know a bit of their perspective.
Let’s talk a bit about Fresh Dressed, which has some fascinating stories about creativity and business. Who was Dapper Dan?
Dapper Dan was a shop owner in Harlem who wanted to sell Louis Vuitton and Gucci and other luxury brands, but those brands had no interest in making Dan a vendor. He said, “I like this stuff, I know people in my community,” so he did what hip-hop does, which is take music from elsewhere, sample it, and reimagine it. So he took luxury brands and he reimagined how the garments were configured. He would manufacture his own prints of those garments, with the same logo and everything. In his own words, he “blackenized it.” Clothing is a language, and he basically introduced a whole new dialect.
He was shut down for copyright infringement. Someone in the documentary says, “The brands shouldn’t have shut him down. They should have hired him.”
A lot of his innovations, they do now! They weren’t making ball caps and belts and car interiors. If they’d had the foresight to say, “You know what, what this guy is doing is actually really cool,” who knows what could have come from that?
There’s also an amazing story in there about how LL Cool J did a Gap commercial, but wore a FUBU cap and transformed it into a coded FUBU ad.
He says in his rap in the ad, “For us, by us, on the low.” The people at the Gap didn’t understand what was being said in front of them. He’s wearing a FUBU cap on camera, saying, “For us, by us, on the low.” But to the executives at the Gap, they had no idea.
You’re distributing the film through a lot of channels, including a simultaneous theatrical/VOD strategy.
CNN Films financed it. We took it to Sundance where it was picked up by Samuel Goldwyn Films, which is getting it into 11 cities around the country on the 26th. Simultaneously, viewers will be able to pay to download it on Vimeo. It’s also going to air on CNN and a few other networks, [and] it’s also going to be distributed internationally. Meanwhile, StyleHaul, which has a network of YouTube creators, is also promoting the film through their channels. I’m not sure there’s ever been a film of this nature distributed on that level through so many different platforms at once. But this is the direction where film is going.
This interview has been condensed and edited.